I’m fond of books that take me back to another time, as if I’ve slipped through a portal, to experience our human history in person. A Darker Sea is one of those books.
Award-winning historian James L. Haley has written another gripping story of midshipman Bliven Putnam. The first in series details Putnam’s naval adventures in the Mediterranean and Tripoli; for this second installment, Putnam has returned stateside and been given command of his own ship, the modest USS Tempest. When the United States declares war on Great Britain in 1812, and although outnumbered in ships 50 to1, Putnam goes forth without hesitation to serve his country.
Putnam’s goal, and that of his infant country, is to bring justice for the US ships taken as prizes, and reclaim the seamen aboard them unwillingly pressed into service by the British. Putnam also sets out with hopes to locate his friend and fellow seaman Sam Bandy, captured by the British some months earlier. While he must leave his new wife, Clarity, at home in New England, he does get to visit her at several points throughout the book. This is good for both Putnam and the reader, as Clarity is a delightfully fierce and modern woman for her time, a staunch anti-slavery supporter, and represents the good we are always aspiring to.
While this book is the second in series, it’s of no challenge to pick up with this installment of Putnam’s story; the author keeps the reader up to speed with past events. Haley doesn’t overwhelm with historical data either. The novel is well-balanced with period detail, character story, and of course, naval action (which I found surprisingly interesting). Despite the grisly descriptions of what war at sea actually looks like, humor is sprinkled generously throughout. In a letter to his mother at home, Putman recounts his wait for an impending sea battle to get underway: “You need not be anxious for me, for I tell you, if I had known that war could be fought at so slow a pace, I would have brought more books with me.”
The thread woven throughout this book is that humans do things they know are vile, from taking slaves to war — what Haley refers to as “this darker sea of humanity.” We simply can’t seem to help ourselves. As Putnam’s mother writes to him in return: “My son let us keep this confidence between ourselves … my scruple against war is not religiously impelled as among the Quakers … Rather, everything I have seen of war derives, in its past near or far, from greed, or pride, or envy, or simple malice, or other of the Seven Deadly Sins — war from the party that seeks ill gain comes of evil.” Like every good war narrative — whether screen or page — this book makes evident war has far more costs than it may first appear.
Throw on the Master & Commander soundtrack, pour yourself a swig of rum, and travel back in time with this entertaining narrative of US naval history and its characters.
A Darker Sea: Master Commandant Putnam and the War of 1812 (A Bliven Putnam Naval Adventure) by James L. Haley (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, November 14, 2017, 400 pages)